Class-divided societies have almost always been governed politically by a small minority. In general, this chosen few is a small group even in relation to the ‘ruling class’ itself, in the Marxist sense, the class which possesses or controls the economic wealth of society through the institutions of property, and in whose collective interests society is governed. The characteristics of such governing groups, especially in capitalist societies, and the nature of the relationship between them and the class or classes they represent—the social forces giving their power its fundamental meaning—is one of the most fascinating of historical problems. All too often, talk of ‘the ruling class’—however polemically justified it may be in particular cases, in the face of antediluvian notions—tends by itself to obscure or at least leave aside such questions. Hence, argument remains on the level of the affirmation that there is a class which rules over the rest of society, and does not go on to describe how it does so. Or at best the idea of power is seen as indicating the obvious, universal instruments of power: the coercive State, the police and the army, deliberate propaganda for a way of life and certain sacred values.

But the modalities of power are infinite. In reality, the hegemony of one social class over subordinate classes in society may be extremely complex, a cultural tissue of great variety and subtlety, extending all the way from the education of infants to the naming of streets, present in peoples’ inhibitions and mental blocs as well as in what they profess to believe—all that tradition of the dead generations ‘weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, as Marx said. Mr Guttsman uses this remark to head his first chapter of his recent book.footnote1 Appropriately because the ancient bourgeois society of England is surely the most thoroughly conditioned by sediments of this kind, the most intimately burdened down by successive, often hetergeneous layers of historic culture deposited during the long good fortune of English capitalism. ‘The revolution which did not happen in England’, Edward Thompson has recently reminded us, ‘is as important for understanding England as the French Revolution is for understanding France.’

The British governing class, for this reason, functioned as the centre or nexus of a much wider and deeper hegemonic system. Its political and administrative authority, its control of the State—the central bastion of power—was surrounded by a most formidable array of protective and concealing earthworks, gradually erected across centuries, and appearing almost as a feature of the natural landscape. In this fortress, it appeared as the incarnation of inevitable, timeless traditions, of an authority legitimate because always in existence and adapted like an ancient tree to the place of its growth. The rule of a class is most effective when it is least obvious, when the rôle of the State and coercion is minimal, when power exists not as constraint but as a kind of drugged, deeply conditioned consent on the part of the masses, as tacit inhibitions of the social consciousness which no effort of will can untie. It is by means such as these that British society has been ruled in the interests of the true dominating class—the industrial and financial bourgeoisie—for nearly two centuries. The bonds of such a system have proved themselves stronger than steel, stronger by far than Prussian bourgeois bureaucracy or French bourgeois logic.

The governing class, or élite, of the bourgeoisie was, of course, originally the aristocracy. This was the essence of the revolution—the bourgeois-democratic, rationalizing, egalitarian revolution—which did not happen. The English bourgeoisie of the Industrial Revolution did not revolutionize society as a whole. Afraid from the beginning of the power of the new labouring masses brought into being by and for the Industrial Revolution itself, intimidated by the spectacle of the French Revolution and all it signified, the English middle class quickly arrived at a ‘compromise’ with the English ancien régime. Because of its basically capitalist structure (tenant-farming carried on by wage-labour for profit) and its absence of legal definition as a privileged estate, the aristocracy was such that a ‘compromise’ of this sort was possible. Nevertheless, the landowners were also the main protagonists of a distinctive civilization, half-way between the feudal and the modern, with its own ways of life, its own values and culture—a civilization still vital, at the period of the Industrial Revolution, and in spite of its bourgeois traits qualitatively distinct from the new social order of that Revolution. And no ‘compromise’ or ‘alliance’—the usual terms employed—was, in fact, possible as between contrasting civilizations. No conscious tactical arrangement, no deal lasting for a season, was conceivable between social forces of this complexity and magnitude. Amalgamation was the only real possibility, a fusion of different classes and their diverse cultures into one social order capable of guaranteeing social stability and keeping the proletariat in its place. The history of England from the late 18th century onwards is in large measure the story of this fusion, its strains, achievements, and bizarre results.

Because the social and cultural factors in this process of mutual class absorption were disparate, the resultant civilization was itself deeply heterogeneous in character. Inside this permanent, organic ‘compromise the landlords kept control of the State and its main organs, as a governing élite trusted (on the whole) by the bourgeoisie. The contrast between this situation and most other bourgeois democracies is very striking; in general, bourgeois republics (like the different French republics, the United States, Italy after unification, the democratic periods of German history, etc) give rise to a political élite recruited more or less directly from the ranks of the bourgeoisie itself, to a class of professional men of politics who represent the interests, the outlook, the culture of the bourgeoisie directly. They are part of a homogeneous social order. Pre-bourgeois elements have usually persisted in these societies, certainly—but generally in the shape of a peasantry, a subordinate rural order elbowed aside in the evolution of capitalism and of ever-diminishing importance. In England, paradoxically, the more advanced rural order preceding the rise of capitalism survived as the master of the latter. Not the peasantry but the aristocracy itself survived, in the face of the inevitable political and ideological feebleness of the emergent bourgeoisie, as the governors of the most dynamic capitalist system in the world. And landowning civilization survived with them, as a mode of living, a culture and language, a type of personality and psychology, a whole dominant ethos.

For the successful functioning of the new composite social order, this ethos had to impose itself upon the mentality of society as large as the apex of civilization, as the very image of genuine culture—the embodiment of the superior life—values outwit the economic process, the process of bourgeois accumulation and its ‘materialism’. The political élite, therefore, does not in these circumstances appear in the least as a simple expression of the economically dominant class—as a ‘committee’ charged with looking after the collective affairs and interests of the bourgeoisie, in Marx’s phrase. Instead, it appears as the emanation of a distinct social class, independent of and separate from the main conflicts and concerns of urban, capitalist society. It is not formed by the State and State institutions (the public educational system, State universities, technocratic colleges like the French grandes écoles) but has its own, natural, basis. It links the present to the past in an (apparently) unbroken tradition of authority, summing up this past in an effortless, natural assumption of the habits and posture of power here and now. This assumption is fortified by its association with the general social values of refinement—with life as something to be lived, not existed for the sake of accumulation. The State, political power, become in this way the centre of a vast social mystique—functioning within a set of ideas and attitudes and feelings and inhibitions that are, themselves, a form of hegemony.

It is often observed that all capitalist classes, as soon as their freedom of action economically is assured, become rapidly conservative in outlook. The English capitalist class, because of the peculiar circumstances attending its birth, was conservative from the outset. But it did not evolve its own conservatism, as the product of a unified bourgeois culture. The perfect model of social conservatism was before its eyes, in the social order of the English agrarian world. Modern English conservatism was the product, therefore, of a grafting process whereby the emergent society of industrial capitalism took this older world into itself, as its head, its directing organ capable of looking after its vital interests and able to provide a kind of authority, a many-sided hegemony superior to anything that it—in its notorious crudity—could develop.